Making A List

Today marks the end of two very busy workweeks.  Column deadlines, revisions on a 400-plus page manuscript, an interview over lunch, a speaking engagement to prepare and give, a couple of municipal meetings with a doctor’s appointment squeezed in is a lot for me.  This racing from one activity to the next should have been capped off with the taping of a cooking demo today but the session, because of a midweek storm, has been bumped to next week.  Just as well; I’ll be fresher and more focused.

This pace is unusual.  A typical workweek is much less frenetic: I sit, I write.

And I work through these writing projects methodically:  complete one assignment, cross it off the list, address the next one.  Never a nimble transitioner, I like bringing something to an end before embarking on something new, and I really appreciate down time between each project.

Today I’m thinking about patterns of work behavior in the context of a conversation I had earlier this week with fellow writer/food writer and Simmons College alum, Heather Atwood.  Heather writes a weekly food column for the Gloucester Times.  She also has a couple of finished manuscripts at home.  In other words, we have an awful lot in common, and we spent a good portion of our lunch together talking about writing fiction, writing about food, and how to get family meals on the table when you do either.  Or both.

When writing anything – fiction or non-fiction – one tends to get immersed in another world.  It can be difficult to look up from the page, simply blink away the residue of that world, and then move on to the next task.  Most of us need to ease into the change of focus.  I know I do.  Heather told me that at times when she was writing fiction, she found it hard to stop her work at the end of the day and get excited about cooking a meal.

I nodded; I understand the trance-like state she described, and the lethargy (or is it bewilderment?) one feels when landing back in reality.  I feel that way about wrapping a piece I’m working on only to come face-to-face with dusting and vacuuming, laundering and folding clothes.  Those chores require discipline and organizational energy I can’t seem to summon after releasing myself from the clutches of my interior world.

Cooking doesn’t pose for me the same challenge.  No, it is not effortless, but it is an effort I enjoy and one that dovetails with my workday.  It provides a gentle exit from the inside of my mind, quiet enough that it doesn’t jar my brain with drastic change, yet physical enough to ease me back into real-time action.

Over lunch, with our commonalities and philosophies out of the way, the chat turned to one of the main reasons we had gotten together: Heather and I are working to tape the cooking demo I mentioned earlier.  She has interviewed and filmed a variety of cooks, from the home cook to the renowned professional chef, and each subject has brought his or her food point of view and style to the video spot.  Soon it would be my turn.  And what did I think I’d like to do for my moments in front of the camera, Heather asked.

I said I love to bake bread.  And that I’m known for my skill at making a meal out of next to nothing. So when we tape next week, I’ll be baking bread and showing viewers how to whip up three main dishes seemingly out of nothing.

But meals don’t really appear from nothing or next-to-nothing, do they?  And I’d be doing readers a disservice if I gave that impression, enthusing about how easy it is after working all day at any job to come home and plate up a beautiful meal in an hour or less.  I’ll continue to enthuse about cooking (because I love it and I think you should too) but temper it with a note on preparation.

Preparation is key.

Preparation doesn’t necessarily mean cooking and freezing a week’s worth of dinners on the weekend, or carefully planning a week’s worth of menus and shopping to that list of menu ingredients.  Both are great strategies but, truthfully, they aren’t mine except maybe on occasion.

I like to allow for a little more whimsy and last minute decisions as a cook, and I do this by relying on a well-stocked pantry.  That way, if I buy the meat and fish and seasonal produce we feel like eating over the course of a week, I have the luxury of deciding at 4 o’clock what I feel like cooking on any given day.  I find this approach works even on the days when the cupboard looks its barest.  If Friday rolls around and all I have left between freezer and fridge is a nice piece of flank steak, one cabbage and an onion, I can still pull off sesame flank steak over stir-fried spicy asian noodles and cabbage.  Or grilled steak sandwiches and cole slaw.  Or…well, you get the idea.

The pantry is your friend.

Here’s what I always try to keep on hand.

Oils: a cooking olive oil, an extra virgin olive oil, canola or vegetable oil, and sesame oil

Vinegars: red wine vinegar, unfiltered cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and rice wine vinegar

Dry goods: a variety of pastas; white, brown, and Arborio rice; polenta corn meal; lentils and a variety of dried beans; a good selection of herbs and spices, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, and both sea and kosher salt

Baking supplies: unbleached and whole wheat flours; SAF Instant yeast; light brown, dark brown and white sugars; molasses and honey; cornmeal and rolled oats; baking powder and baking soda; large blocks of milk and dark chocolate; a good assortment of dried fruits and nuts (that can also be used in main and side dishes)

Perishables: assorted olives; garlic, onions and potatoes; lemons, limes and oranges; milk and a small amount of cream or sour cream or plain greek yogurt; butter, eggs and some kind of cheese like cheddar; a really big chunk of parmesan for grating; good bread

Prepared foods: cartons of good quality chicken and vegetable stocks; Hellman’s mayonnaise; Dijon and grainy mustards jarred artichoke hearts and capers; canned plum tomatoes, both whole and crushed; soy sauce or tamari, hot sauce, and Worcestershire sauce

If I’ve missed any you think are essential, let me know!

©2010  Jane Ward